Africa and the gospel
James Forlines was one of the speakers at the March Global Mandate Conference where close to 200 missionaries from Africa were present for a four-day retreat at the instance of the Agape Generation International Church. In this interview with Church Times Nigeria, Forlines bears his mind on the missions and how the church in Nigeria is engaged in it. Below are excerpts:
You made a statement in the course of your message that many Nigerian churches in foreign lands are more of embassy churches of the home church. How exactly do you mean?
Let me start by thanking God for all the churches and the efforts of the churches in the sub-Saharan region. But I am also careful to say that the churches in the sub-saharan region need to learn from the mistakes of the Korean Churches. One of the things we should learn from the Korean experience is that they were reaching Koreans in the diaspora and not indigenous people. The great call on Nigeria is to ask God to help the churches to reach the indigenous people around where they go to do missions so that it won’t be Nigerians filling the pews in these churches. What we see is that many of the churches in foreign countries set up by Nigerians are mostly dominated by Nigerians in those countries. The point I am making is that there should be a deliberate attempt to extend the gospel to indigenous people in those countries so that our efforts would not wasted.
How easy is this given the fact the language and culture barriers in these countries?
I do believe they can learn the language. I mean the missionaries who go to these countries must first endeauvour to learn the languages of their host country. I know many Nigerians who have been able to learn the language of the people they reach out to. One of the key things that make them to connect to them to make the church indigenous to the people is to understand the language and the culture of the people. And I know Africans have a capacity for language. What I have found is that Africans can pick up languages easily than those of us from the West. The average African speaks at least two languages. You speak tribal language, English and perhaps French. You can make a commitment to learn the language. I am not suggesting there are language schools that carry out these services. But I think the language of the people and their culture are two important things you will need to know if you need to meet the indigenous people in the host country where you do missions.
Some have accused Nigerian churches of preaching syncretic gospel. They believe that is why they only attract only Nigerians in the diaspora to their churches. How will you react to this?
Well I will urge that we allow the holy spirit of God to allow the word of God to create the people of God. I will urge a discovery Bible study approach is used. That way the Holy Spirit is the best conceptualizer. He can conceptualise truth. If we come in with a long list of teachings most of the time we bring a lot of cultural baggage with us. But if we allow the Holy Spirit to do the teaching the people will be able to determine what the holy spirit is saying in their own cultural context. They should allow the holy spirit of God to use the word of God and not bringing their culture. There may be a room for our culture in foreign land. But that is not necessary in the first place because the Holy Spirit is in a best position to interpret the scriptures to people. When I first learnt about truth from somebody who is highly more knowledgeable than I, I ended up depending on the person. But that should not be the case. We should all depend on the Holy Spirit. No teacher should be a god to us. We should depend on the Holy Spirit to relate to us based on our own cultural experience.
Are you recommending the kind of experience Philip had with the Euthopian Eunuch who only had a one off encounter with Philip and then went on with his life. We are told he was the one who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia
Whether it is Ethiopian Eunuch or Thessalonians where Paul spent just three weeks you will find out that it is the Holy Spirit that did the better part of the work in the lives of the people. The Holy Spirit is the agency through which the word of God spread. We can slow it down when we determine that our own theological persuasions is being forced on people overtly. That will be indoctrinating the people. We should be helping them to find Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit allow the word to create His Church in communities where we find ourselves.
From your analogy it seems the US and Europe is guiltier of this. They imported their culture to us in Africa along with the gospel. And we are doing the same thing in our diaspora missions?
I do want to be careful here. I am greatly appreciative of all those who brought the gospel to Africa. We should not undervalue their impact. I am just saying we can learn from their mistake. When we bring our culture with the gospel to a new environment it slows down the gospel. The Holy Spirit does need our culture in the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So what has been your own experience on the missions’ field?
I have been in North Africa for the last 10 years. We are working with African indigenous ministries and churches. We believe the call of the Lord is upon Africa. We are in the background. We are catalyst and we help to partner with them.
You said Africa has 180 million evangelicals. Yet it has the largest number of unreached globally. Why do you think this is so?
The statistics was given nine years. It could be greater than 180 million by now. If we include Catholics and Protestants it could be half a billion. The darkness is mainly because of Islam dominated areas. African Traditional Religion has been squeezed in the last years. Islam is the strength in many of those countries that are yet to be penetrated by the gospel. It is a challenge. But Jesus has promised He would be with us till the end of the age. We are looking forward to that.
Places like Egypt, Libya, Sudan where majorly Christian countries before Islam came and wiped out Christianity. Don’t you think we are toying with a repeat of that scenario in some other parts of Africa?
We see that even in the ancient city of Catharge. The Bible as we know it was canonized at the Council of Carthage the remains of the building is still there. Unfortunately Islam has overrun these areas. It is sad when you think that the church was strong in the first century in those parts of the world. But I do not see Islam overrunning any country again. I see the church is growing more rapidly in the Muslim world than what we had in history. There is a book, Winds in the House of Islam that tells the story of incredible conversions among Muslims. There are millions of Muslims coming to Christ. We need to be careful to understand that the church’s response to Islam is not hate. It is love compassion and a genuine heart that they will make them be followers of Jesus.
Boko Haram has been a thorn in the flesh of the Church in Nigeria. Some church leaders are getting to a point of frustration and even calling for a reprisal. What do you think?
Every time I hear of Boko Haram and attack on the church in Nigeria, I pray for Christian leaders that they will respond with the mind of Christ. That is my heart beat. I have been in places where there had been challenges in Africa. I pray that the Lord will give them wisdom and knowledge that the eyes of their understanding be enlightened. How we respond to crisis determines our character.
What do you think of Nigeria?
I have been in Nigeria five times this year. I follow what has been happening in Nigeria since the 70s. There is a great movement of God in Nigeria. I believe that the call of God is upon this nation. Because there is a potential for missions in
Nigeria. I learn more from my Africa brothers about prayers and fasting. I am greatly appreciative of the grace and presence of God in Nigeria. There is some unique strength in Africa. We are Jesus’ bride. We belong to one body. I am thrilled to be part of a movement that is a government of many colours.
So what will you suggest to be the best approach to Boko Haram insurgent in Nigeria?
I am sympathetic to the challenges that are being faced. But the Bible says let this mind be in you, the mind of Christ. Jesus emptied himself of His glory when he came to the world. He humbled himself to death even the death of the cross. We need the mind of Christ to deal with the issue of insurgents. My attitude is: I must leave my safety and security in His hands. Jesus left heaven for the world. He took a risk. It is better we leave our safety in the hands of God. But that does not mean we should be careless. I have been in many unsecure places and I just made up my mind to commit my life to God and not be afraid of what awaits me. We can’t just be where we are safe all the time.
If you look at Jesus, He was the one serving his disciples not people serving hm. He took off his robe and guided himself. He knelt down before his creations washing their feet. I must leave my safety and security in the hands of God. I must bury my pride and desire for the high places. I am a little bit concerned when people lift themselves high. We must willingly sacrifice. I can’t tell you I would not die in the hands of some Muslims. But that will only happen if God permits it. I have no wish to die, I have no wish to be a hero. I have got to judge my motive. But I can’t refuse to do something because my life is at risk. He told us we will be his witness. I can tell you that I had been at risk of being killed in some places but the Lord has been saving me. I could have been dead by now. I am going to trust God and pray for his will.
I was in Jos shortly after two pastors daughters were killed in one of the bomb explosions. I know these pastor’s daughters. But I am not going to hate Muslims and pray evil for them because of what some of them are doing. I hate the evil they do but I do not hate them. We must understand that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. I am not wrestling against the Fulani. I must love him and hate the evil one that is working through him. You don’t pray that God will kill the man committing evil but you pray against the evil spirit working in him.